The Post-Apocalyptic Morality of 'The Walking Dead'

Survivors struggle to be human in a world ruled by zombies.



In a recent, revealing tweet, Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara said that every writer on the series is required to read psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's legendary concentration camp narrative, Man's Search for Meaning. The connection between a true-life account of the Holocaust and a TV series about zombies may initially seem tenuous, or even crass. But it also shows that Mazzara and his writers are taking The Walking Dead's pulpy premise very, very seriously. Man's Search for Meaning chronicles Frankl's unimaginable philosophical journey: from shock, to apathy, to bitterness and despair, and eventually to purposefulness, after having survived one of the most dehumanizing experiences imaginable.

It's a real-life version of the despairing process that's beginning to happen to the protagonists on The Walking Dead, who have begun to confront how best to survive in a world of utter hopelessness. For the dearly departed, becoming a zombie is dehumanization in the most literal sense of the word. But The Walking Dead's subtler, more insidious dehumanization is what's happening to the still-human survivors. Last week's "18 Miles Out" left the group mired in a complex moral conundrum that has nothing to do with zombies and everything to do with humanity. Young prisoner Randall—who, lest we forget, was part of a group that attempted to kill Rick and company—knows where the group's vulnerable farmstead is located. Could Randall be trusted to repay the group's mercy in kind? Or would he betray his captors and mount an attack for his personal gain? The question of Randall's ultimate fate, which places each of the survivors in the role of judge and jury, is a moral test unlike any that they've faced—and as Dale pleads for the life of the prisoner, their reactions reveal just how much the group's sense of human morality has begun to erode:

"We have to eliminate the threat."

- Rick

As the group's de facto leader, Rick carries the majority of the survivors' collective moral burden. His approach to the Randall problem is a particularly selfish brand of pragmatism: His priority is keeping Lori, Carl, and his unborn child safe, and freeing Randall constitutes an unnecessary risk to that safety. But it's hard not to be disturbed by the arbitrariness of Rick's decision. It was, after all, not too long ago that Rick was the outsider of the survivors' group, when Glen risked his life to save Rick from a particularly aggressive horde of zombies. This isn't the Rick Grimes of the series' pilot episode, who said "I'm sorry this happened to you" to a zombie before he gave it a mercy killing. It isn't even the Rick who pleaded and reasoned with Hershel Greene for temporary sanctuary earlier in the season. But Rick, unlike some of the others, also takes responsibility for his inhumanity; his approach to Randall's execution—which he, like Shane, supports—recalls the philosophy of Ned Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones: "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword." Rick isn't just willing to be judge and jury; should the need arise, he'll be the executioner.

"Who says we're civilized anymore?"

- Andrea

If The Walking Dead's scale of morality ranges from the humanism of Dale to amorality of Shane, Andrea's arrow has consistently swung toward to the "Shane" side of the equation. Andrea faced the hopelessness of a post-apocalyptic life more quickly than the other survivors when her sister Amy was the series' first major zombie victim. Dale, who thwarted Andrea's attempt to commit suicide at the end of the first season, has repeatedly and unsuccessfully appealed to her sense of decency (in "Judge, Jury, Executioner," he reminds her—and us—that in her former life Andrea was a civil rights attorney). Andrea's sense of humanity seems to have died along with her sister, though there's always the chance that the events of the final moments of "Judge, Jury, Executioner" will resurrect her sense of moral duty.

"I don't want to know... I've made too many mistakes."

- Hershel

There are few characters on The Walking Dead who have had as full an arc as Hershel Greene, who spent months protecting and sustaining his zombified loved ones before Shane gunned each of them down before his eyes. Hershel has subsequently retreated away from religion and back into alcoholism. But his refusal to weigh in on the episode's moral conundrum speaks to a new level of hopelessness for the character. Hershel, like Carol, is content to let someone else make the hard choices—and to stand silently by while violence is carried out in the name of justice. But refusing to intervene one way or the other is a choice in its own right—it's just a more cowardly one.

"Keeping our humanity—that's a choice."

- Dale

If there's a God in The Walking Dead universe, he has a particularly cruel sense of humor. Dale, who spent "Judge, Jury, Executioner" pleading the case of a man he didn't even know, is the one on the executioner's block by the episode's end, after being attacked by one the utterly amoral walking dead. It's no accident that Carl, The Walking Dead's last remaining "innocent," is indirectly responsible for Dale's death; taken broadly, his death marks the death of a certain morality on the show, and the embrace of a philosophy that's something crueler and darker. Dale, unlike any of the other survivors, maintained his humanity to the very end of his waking life—but even he couldn't choose not to come back as something amoral and inhuman. In a world that seems utterly incapable of getting better, it's a none-too-reassuring sign that things will almost certainly get worse.